In March 1856 a pair of spirited reformers, Dr. Thomas Low Nichols and
Mary Gove Nichols, arrived in Yellow Springs to open their latest venture
in comprehensive hygiene, the Memnonia Institute. They had just leased
the Water Cure Establishment in the Glen, where they hoped to bring
their philosophies of healthful living together under the Institute's
high-minded motto, "Freedom, Fraternity, Chastity."
Water cure was popular in Europe and the United States as a treatment
for a whole litany of illnesses. Hydropathy, to use the vernacular,
emphasized application of cold water, along with prescribed diet, dress,
and exercise as both a curative technique and a way of healthful living.
While the movement stressed that such healing could be done in the home,
it nonetheless became centered around well-appointed spas, where visitors
bathed in prodigiously advertised "healing waters" under the
care of a physician.
Even before Antioch College (1852) and the Little Miami Railroad (1845),
Yellow Springs had a thriving resort business. Because of the naturally
cold waters of the Yellow Spring and the area's "salubrity of air,"
both a hotel and a water cure operated in the Glen by 1850. Improved
transportation brought on by the railroad and the progressive reputation
of the college (particularly that of the pioneering educator turned
college president, Horace Mann) made the water cure's location all the
more advantageous to the Nichols' plans. In early 1856 they published
a circular announcing their new "School of Life, Progress, and
Harmony," which they named for a singing statue on the Nile River
that, according to legend, greeted the sunrise each day with music.
They didn't need to send the copy they mailed to the president's office
at Antioch. Mann knew their work all too well, and was none too pleased
at the prospect of their arrival. By this time the Nichols were already
noted (and notorious) for their published avocations of free love in
their journal Nichols' Monthly. In 1855 Mrs. Nichols' autobiographical
novel Mary Lyndon first appeared, receiving harsh reviews (including
four full columns in the New York Times entitled "A Bad
Book Gibbeted") for its attack on the institution of marriage.
Dr. Nichols had further given a series of lectures in Cincinnati on
"Free-Love, a Doctrine of Spiritualism."
Free-love and spiritualism were, in fact, only the latest of the Nichols'
interests, which also included vegetarianism, hydropathy, phrenology,
Swedenborgianism, Fourieristic socialism, and women's rights. They gravitated
to intellectual trends like gadflies.
Horace Mann, though generally reformist in his outlook, was opposed
to free love. He regarded their plan as "the superfoetation of
diabolism upon polygamy." As the head of a new college already
beset with crippling financial difficulties, the last thing he needed
was a free love colony in his neighborhood. To make things worse, Antioch
students, who already patronized the Water Cure for meals, began frequenting
the institute and reading the Nichols' books, on sale at the college
As the number one moral guardian of Antioch, Mann saw it as his responsibility
to drive the Nichols and their followers from Yellow Springs before
they influenced his students to "rush into licentiousness."
He convened a public meeting at the Methodist Church for the purpose
of denouncing the Nichols and appointing a committee to prevent their
taking control of the Water Cure.
Other indignant locals also tried to prevent Memnonia from opening.
After Mann's failed attempt to influence the owner of the Water Cure,
a Dr. Ehrmann of Cincinnati, to deny the Nichols their lease, the previous
tenant's wife barricaded herself inside the main house when the landlord
arrived to evict them. When confronted by a mob of 40 villagers who
showed up to defend their besieged neighbor, Ehrmann fled, running all
the way to Xenia along the railroad track.
The Nichols fought back, using Mann's own weapon of choice--language--to
great effect. Dr. Nichols attacked "the Calvin of that Modern Geneva--Yellow
Springs" from the pages of his monthly, warning "if any sick
fail of cure for want of our treatment, it is Horace Mann who has hindered
them. If any die who might have come to us and lived, he is their murderer."
With help from endorsements by noted spirit medium J. B. Conklin, his
tactics worked. In July 1856, local anti-Nichols sentiment subsided
enough that Memnonia finally opened for business, and by the fall Mann
appeared quite alone in his opposition.
The Memnonian Institute turned out to exhibit few aspects of free love.
Its guiding principle, the "Law of Progression in Harmony,"
stated that a period of rigorous education and self-discipline (particularly
sexual abstinence) was a critical step toward the Harmonic society espoused
by Charles Fourier, a colorful and enigmatic French utopian theorist.
Fourier thought Harmony, a state of perfectly balanced "passions,"
or natural impulses, developed gradually and instinctively within a
free love collective. Once achieved, Harmony produced "attractive
industry," a kind of spontaneous communal labor.
Memnonians took strict vows of chastity and pledged themselves to "careful
industry" and "contentious rest." They observed a vegetarian
diet and drank only water.
The Nichols referred to themselves as the "provisional despots"
of the community, with Mrs. Nichols as chief spiritualist and disciplinarian.
She led weekly seances called "circles" and daily t-group
style sessions in which the members' failings were exposed and penance
assigned. Dr. Nichols basked in his victory over Horace Mann, criticizing
the College's strict code of conduct in Nichols' Monthly and
boldly predicting that as a school Memnonia would soon outshine Antioch.
He also published an eloquent defense written by Jared Gage, a young
Antioch student Mann had dismissed for residing at Memnonia.
The institute itself did not exactly flourish, however, and never attracted
more than 20 followers Many others frequently in residence were actually
water cure patients Dr. Nichols treated on the side to defray Memnonia's
cost. The rigorous lifestyle the Nichols demanded probably kept membership
low, as well as the somewhat high $150 enrollment fee. The Nichols'
ever-deepening spiritual beliefs gradually led them and their few remaining
students to convert to Roman Catholicism, ending their stay in Yellow
Springs in March 1857.